Two "wildcats" are found in Vermont, the eastern bobcat (Lynx rufus rufus) and the Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis canadensis). The eastern bobcat is sometimes referred to as the bay lynx, while the Canada lynx is referred to simply as the lynx.
Despite the similarity in Latin names, these cats are different species and each has a very different population status in Vermont. The eastern bobcat is still common throughout most of the state, even though it is rarely seen.
The main reasons for the lack of bobcat sightings are twofold; it is solitary by nature and it is crepuscular, or mostly active at dawn and dusk.
The Canada lynx on the other hand, is nearly extinct in Vermont, if it occurs at all, and is on Vermont's Endangered Species list. It requires large tracts of deep, fluffy snow with abundant snowshoe hare populations in order to compete with the more adaptable bobcat.
The eastern bobcat can be found in a variety of habitats including coniferous forests, bogs or swamps, and partially forested mountain areas. Particularly in the northeast, rocky ledges are important features to its habitat, as courtship rituals and denning often occur around them.
Some factors in the bobcat's selection of habitat seem to be prey abundance and cover. For foraging, the preferred habitat is semi open areas to forested swamps. Recently logged areas and farms often provide food and cover for the bobcat's prey species.
The bobcat frequently chooses rock features for a den site but may also use a stump or thicket. The bobcat likes to wander. It is a crepuscular, most active during dawn and dusk hours. It not only travels on the ground, but will also wade and swim.
The bobcat is excellent at climbing and likes to nap in the shade of a large limb. Trees also provide a means of escape. When tracking a bobcat, they often go out of their way to walk on horizontal poles or logs that are well off the ground. When it has completed its tree walk, the bobcat will return to its earlier line of travel.
The bobcat jumps at or gives short chase to nearly any moving thing at close range, whether for food or fun. Like a domestic cat, it will stalk, sit, and then stalk again towards the prey. The bobcat is not known for long, active chases, preferring only to run short distances.
A bobcat's eyes and ears are its greatest assets. It will poke and smell under logs to disrupt chipmunks, mice, and other prey that might be hiding there. The bobcat does not have the sense of smell required to follow a scent trail. Many tales tell of the bobcat's ferocity, this is largely untrue. A bobcat will sometimes attempt to bluff a larger animal or human, however it sometimes trusts its bluff too much.
Mating usually occurs in late March or early April. Male bobcats reach sexual maturity at the age of two years old and females at the age of one. After mating, the males and females separate until the next breeding period. Bobcats are polygamous; the male will mate with more than one female during the breeding season.
Den selection and care of the young are left up to the females. Bobcats are resourceful and intelligent have adapted to a wide variety of habitats. Den sites must provide protection and a food supply for the young. Occasionally, bobcats will use an abandoned building as a den site. Natural den sites include rock crevices, holes in the ground, and fallen trees.
In Vermont, most dens are found in crevices of mountainside ledges and occasionally under turned over stumps or blown down trees. The den is simply a dry, protected space large enough to accommodate the female and her kittens for the short time they will use it.
The gestation period (time between fertilization to birth) is about 60 days. Thus, the well-spotted kittens are born generally in late May or early June. In New England, the average litter size is three kittens. They are born with fur and their eyes are sealed, similar to domestic cats. The eyes open in a week to ten days.
For the first two weeks, the kittens stay huddled together. At feeding time they mew and crawl over each other in search of the female who provides them with milk. When not feeding, they sleep. Their activity level increases as they age, and they spend much of their time playing in the den by the time they are three weeks old.
The coat that the kittens' are born with lasts only about two months and then begins to look like that of the adults. The kittens are usually weaned at this time and they begin to venture outside the den. They are curious about their new surroundings and investigate everything when not playing.
By midsummer, the kittens travel on short trips with the female. They venture further from the den on their own and may begin "camping" in new temporary dens as they accompany the female on hunting training sessions. The bobcat kittens have a lot to learn to become proficient enough to survive. Being alert is instinctive, yet the use of these instincts is either taught or learned through mistakes. This training is done by the female and may last into early winter.
Tracks of two or more bobcats represent a family group, as adult bobcats are not social and tolerate the presence of the opposite sex only during the breeding season. When breeding season starts, the previous years' kittens are on their own. The young adult bobcats must find their own territory. The home range is reserved by the females for the new litter of kittens. Females will switch home ranges if the old one fails to meet their needs.
Bobcats feed on mice, vole, rats, chipmunks, squirrels, snowshoe hares, cottontail rabbits, birds, and deer. White tailed deer are an important food source for northern bobcats in the winter when snow depths allow for easier predation.
Throughout the year, bobcats are opportunists and will take almost any small animal. In times when food is scarce, bobcats will eat the carcasses of dead animals, known as carion.
There is a conservative hunting and trapping season that is monitored closely and is not detrimental to the bobcat's population. Annually, an average of 20 to 30 bobcats are taken, including incidentals from road kills or other accident. Fewer animals tend to be harvested in years where the population may already be stressed due to circumstances such as severe winter conditions.
The focus of current bobcat management efforts is on the collection of harvest and biological data to better monitor and protect the species, as well as efforts to identify and conserve important bobcat habitat. The bobcat prefers a variety of habitats, ranging from forests to swamps to mountainous regions. To enhance the quality of this habitat, a range of cover types should be available and should include rocky cliffs, optimum habitat for common prey species, and preferably with early to mid-successional species.
Emphasis is placed on providing connections or corridors between areas of core habitat with feeding areas. Recently forested areas can provide excellent habitat, as prey populations increase with the opening of the forest canopy. In addition, the maintenance and conservation of undeveloped areas can also be a useful management practice for bobcats.
The arrival of the European settlers brought about significant changes in the environment. In Vermont, the extirpation of the wolf, mountain lion, and fisher left a predator void that was quickly filled by the bobcat. In addition, there was a greater abundance of prey species, such as deer and snowshoe hare, resulting from huge acres of brushy habitat created as farms reverted to forestland.
The lack of competition, coupled with the increase in food availability, set the stage for increases in bobcat numbers throughout the first half of the century. During this period there was a bounty on the bobcat. In 1856, the bobcat (listed as the bay lynx) was added to the bounty law by the legislature. Bobcats were hunted for a bounty until 1971.
The first regulated season on bobcats began in 1976. Today bobcats again find themselves competing with other predators for food and space. The expansion of coyotes into Vermont and the return of the fisher have made life for the bobcat more challenging and perhaps more similar to the earlier centuries when wolves and mountain lions were around. For example, today, a deer killed in the winter often can no longer be cached by bobcats for days at a time. Within hours, other predators and scavengers arrive to feed.
Survival through the snowy winter periods requires more work and energy expenditure than in those decades when the bobcat was 'top cat.' However, Vermont's bobcat population is stable and well distributed throughout the state, but it is also quite likely, that there are fewer bobcats in Vermont today than there were in the early part of the 20th century (1930s through 1970s).